“...she wouldn't even harm a fly.”
Comedy? Psycho? I'm not saying you'll be laughing at any point, but you may bemused. More bemused than scared.
Maybe Hitchcock’s having a joke on the audience. An audience who easily accepts what they are given. You think that you’re going to a horror film. You react accordingly. You except to be terrified. The film has terrifying moments. You're never taking a shower again.
Hitchcock had made over 40 films before this. Suspense, melodrama, a screwball comedy like Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1942), and a suspenseful comedy, The Trouble with Harry (1955).
Indeed, most of his films have humor except The Wrong Man (1956) and Topaz (1968). Why would he start making a type of film that he has never made before? Psycho’s take on human nature is more pessimistic than, say, Stranger on a Train’s (1951) or Vertigo’s (1958).
I have pointed out several examples of humor at the film’s beginning in the previous blog; now we shall jump to the end.
Norman has asked for a blanket. The guard takes it in the room where Norman is being held. We hear an old woman’s voice thank the guard. We then see Norman sitting against the wall. The mother speaks.
It's sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder.
It’s a complex moment. The voice comes from Norman’s mind. The mother’s voice. The mother who has been portrayed as demanding and possessive. The voice we heard earlier in the movie, a voice that convinces us that Mrs. Bates is alive and may be a “raving thing”.
The voice of Mrs. Bates worries how she will be perceived.
They'll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end, he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man...as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds.
She couldn’t do anything. The real Mrs. Bates. She had been stuffed. She’s afraid that she’ll be blamed for the murders. Worried about being blamed. Thus:
I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do... suspect me. They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching... they'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, "Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly..."
To her, the epitome of normal is when a person shows benevolence to the humblest of creatures.
The antipode to this thinking comes earlier in the film when Lila (Vera Miles), Marion’s sister, first enters Sam's (John Gavin) hardware store. In the background, a woman is buying an insecticide.
Sam's helper sells her a brand and the woman reads the side of the can: the product promises to kill every insect in the world. Just what she needs. Again, Hitchcock has his joke and more. She says:
They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it's guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it's painless. And-and I say, insect or man ...death should always be painless.
She leaves the store satisfied. The woman's satisfaction appears incongruous beside the foregrounded scene where Lila confronts Sam about her missing sister.
Alone, the woman is comic relief and, like a puff of smoke, floats from our consciousness forever. Almost.
Acting as a secret communication to Mrs. Bates, the idea of the scene comes to fruition. We have an inversion of the normal and psychotic. The manifestly normal person who purchases insecticide bears responsibility for annihilating billions of bugs and does not think twice about it, unless we care that those billions of deaths be painless.
In life's hierarchy, way below beasts like crocodiles, sharks, and turtles, are spiders, gnats, and flies. Few tears are shed for the swatted fly—just 20 minutes ago I killed one in my den and felt, as I do when squashing a mosquito, that I’d done humanity a service. This feeling I think nothing about.
I and the audience of Psycho are like the woman in Sam's shop. We epitomize normalcy and sanity. We want the bugs out of our rooms and gardens. We want to stop these creatures from annoying us. The justice of our actions goes undisputed. There's a billion-dollar industry dependent on us.
It's the “psycho” who doesn't want to kill the fly.
Secluded in Norman's mind, the woman we call his mother doesn't understand normal. We might “suspect her” if she doesn't swat the fly. Except that no one is watching her. Only the audience of the film. And we chuckle at her delusion.
This delusion is part of the psychosis, one which is impossible to unravel. Not to mention, Marion’s death was hardly painless.
We have been led to believe by the psychologist (Simon Oakland)—as well as being influenced by Norman saying “thank you” in his mother's voice when he gets the blanket —that Mrs. Bates has taken over Norman.
What a horrible woman, clinging to Norman, suffocating his individuality and manhood. We are amused at “her” delusion about the way “they” will judge when she allows the fly to live. But the joke’s on us, we who have annihilated the insect population of the world painlessly, because we think we know what is happening in Norman's mind. We think we can identify and know a "psycho."
The psycho has a laugh on those watching who are having a laugh; a reference to Norman's conversation with Marion when he describes the “crazy place” where his mother might be put:
Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there?
A reference to the movie house. The audience watching and laughing and judging.
And, again, think of the credit sequence, and the implied parallel between the title and the character. Hitchcock is having the last laugh.
The theater empties. All the normal people go home, scared to take a shower, when what they should have been scared about was that they were actually watching a comedy.
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.